Island hopping

Island hopping

Exploring Scotland’s island distilleries isn’t as difficult as one might think
I was once told by a distiller that ‘you’d have to be crazy to open a distillery on an island today’, in reference to the increased logistical costs and recruitment challenges. Needless to say, his distillery was on an island. However, these factors haven’t dissuaded established businesses from maintaining their operations or from companies establishing new ones in some of Scotland’s most remote communities.

In truth, getting to even the most far-flung islands doesn’t take gargantuan effort these days on account of well-connected services operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, Northlink Ferries, Pentland Ferries, and others. That’s before we even take into account the scattering of islands airports, some of which are more developed than others. Who fancies landing on a beach?

Whether Scotland’s island distilleries have a distinct spirit style of their own isn’t a debate for these pages. What can be said, however, is that all of Scotland’s island distilleries do share a unique aspect to their personality that’s tied up in a sense of place and belonging. Their existence as part of small, rural settlements means they have traditionally tended to be much more in tune with their locality and exist as an integral part of their island community, without which the identity of the island itself would be diminished.

Starting in the south, our journey begins in the Firth of Clyde with the Isle of Arran Distillery in Lochranza. Spearheaded by Hal Currie, formerly managing director of Chivas Brothers (under Seagram) and House of Campbell (Under Pernod), the site was ahead of the current distillery-building curve and spirit first flowed here in June 1995. Originally constructed with only one pair of stills, the company’s success in recent years led to an expansion in late 2016 that saw a second pair added. For the past decade, the Arran Malt has thrived under the watchful eye of master distiller James MacTaggart.

Such is the company’s confidence in the global demand for Scotch whisky, the Isle of Arran Distillers are in the midst of building a second distillery in the south of the island, at Lagg, that will produce a distinct, heavily peated spirit. Current plans estimate a 2018 opening. On account of its varied terrain, the island is said to be ‘Scotland in miniature’ and thus is popular with hikers and photographers. Arran can be reached by regular CalMac ferries from Ardrossan, North Ayrshire, or an irregular service from Kintyre that departs from Claonaig in the summer and Tarbert in the winter.

Next up is the inimitable isle of Islay. The destination of peat pilgrims from across the globe, this windswept isle off the west coast of Kintyre is famous for being a concentrated nexus of distilleries. The island is currently home to Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. It is accessed by means of flights into Islay Airport and ferries into Port Ellen or Port Askaig from Kennacraig in Kintyre. The aforementioned production sites are soon to be joined by Ardnahoe (Hunter Laing & Co), a new distillery that’s set to open in May 2018, and the resurrected spirit of Port Ellen (Diageo). The former project looks to begin production of a ‘classic’ peated style of Islay malt and will draw its water from the nearby Loch Ardnahoe. The latter is being reborn as part of a £35 million project, announced in October 2017, that will also see the historic Brora Distillery in Sutherland rebuilt. Port Ellen was originally founded in 1825 but was mothballed in 1983 and dismantled in 1987. Single malt dating from its later years have recently commanded exorbitant prices at auction, which has presumably prompted Diageo into action in the hope this brand buoyancy will continue. Only time will tell.

Another project that has been on the horizon for some time is that of Gartbreck Distillery. The brain child of entrepreneur Jean Donnay, owner of Glann ar Mor Distillery in Brittany, planning permission was granted for the distillery at Gartbreck farm some three years ago. However, a dispute with Hunter Laing & Co, the original partners in the project, saw everything grind to a halt. The difficulty centred on a strip of land, adjacent to the proposed distillery site, that had been purchased by Hunter Laing and without which construction could not begin. Current reports indicate that a resolution has been reached and that we could see work begin soon. However, at the time of writing it’s too soon to say.

Characterised by the towering Paps of Jura, the island is a wild and wonderous place

Another relative newbie on the scene is Kilchoman Distillery, a farm distillery that was founded by the Wills family in 2005. This small, traditional distillery at Rockside Farm is known for its ‘grain to glass’ philosophy that sees around 25 per cent of the barley used in production come from the fields surrounding the site. What’s more, 20 per cent of the malt requirement is processed at the distillery’s own floor maltings, the rest comes from the Port Ellen maltings.

Islay’s neighbour, Jura, may seem rather empty in comparison. Don’t be fooled. Characterised by the towering Paps of Jura, the island is a wild and wondrous place that offers true peace and solitude. Whether you wish to walk among rugged hills or along beautiful sandy beaches, this Inner Hebridean isle will not disappoint. If you won’t take it from me, perhaps you’ll trust the lauded author George Orwell, who locked himself away in a small cottage here called Barnhill (you can still rent it today) while writing his famous novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Although the book became a cult classic, unfortunately the fresh air didn’t help his ailing body. He contracted Tuberculousis and was dead four years later. Some blame the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpool, the world’s third largest, that is located at the north of the island. In 2013 it was revealed, as part of a project to create an archive in Craighouse, the island’s principal settlement, that the author and some family members were involved in a boating accident at the whirlpool’s eponymous strait. After misreading the tide table, Orwell and his son were tipped overboard and trapped beneath their small motor boat. Although rescued by lobster fishermen, some speculate that the incident instigated the decline in the author’s health, which had always been somewhat fragile.

Now owned by Whyte & Mackay, Jura Distillery was rebuilt from the ashes of an original that was founded 1810. The current Isle of Jura Distillery was established in the early 1960s as a means of economic stimulation that aimed to stabilise the rapidly declining local population. Once relegated to blends, Jura’s single malt brand is experiencing a meteoric rise in popularity on account of its mass-market appeal. Usually reached via Islay, the island can be accessed by means of a regular car ferry from Port Askaig. From April to September, however, a tiny passenger ferry to Craighouse operates from Tayvallich on the Knapdale Peninsula in Argyll.

Looking north from Jura, on a clear day one can see the dramatic cliffs of our next island – Mull. It is currently home to just one distillery, Tobermory (Ledaig), which is to be found in the island’s capital. Founded in 1798, the distillery was bought by the South African drinks conglomerate Distell Group Ltd in 2013. Please note that from early 2017 the distillery has been closed for what is planned to be a two-year shutdown. According to a statement from Distell, this silent period is necessary in order to complete a significant upgrade to the production equipment and visitor centre. Whisky fans shouldn’t be dissuaded though; the primary route to the island is via a short ferry crossing from Oban, where one can of course tour one of Diageo’s famous ‘Classic Malt’ distilleries. After a day admiring the views or touring, a nightcap in the colourful Mishnish pub on the Tobermory waterfront comes highly recommended.

The romantic Isle of Skye looms large in the imagination of many visitors to Scotland. Although it’s been quipped that it is ‘no longer a proper island’, on account of the bridge linking it to the mainland, the truth is that this superstar of the Hebrides didn’t get its reputation without merit. Unquestionably a haven for foodies, superlative dining experiences at The Three Chimneys (Good Food Guide’s UK Restaurant of the Year 2018) and Kinloch Lodge (Three AA Rosettes and a Michelin Star) should not be missed.

Pleasant walks take in such iconic vistas as the Trotternish peninsula’s Old Man of Storr and Quiraing landslip, Glen Brittle’s fairy pools, and the captivating Cuillin mountains. The island’s famous Talisker Distillery was founded in 1830 but suffered from poor management for 50 years. It was eventually taken on by stable owners in 1880, who invested heavily in the site’s infrastructure. In spite of a series of ownership changes, things chugged along relatively happily for most of the next century until a fire ravaged the site in 1960. The rebuilt distillery opened in 1962, but continued to languish in relative obscurity until being promoted as one of the original ‘Classic Malts’ in 1998. Today it is one of the key malt brands in the Diageo portfolio and has one of the group’s most popular visitor centres.

Once the lone distillery on the island, Talisker is now joined by the brand new Torabhaig Distillery, which opened in the summer of 2017. This farm building turned distillery may look quaint from the outside, with its nifty detachable slate roof and rustic charm, but this is no playset distillery. With eight washbacks feeding two copper stills, it has a maximum output of 500,000lpa per year that is intended to be used solely for single malt releases. The distillery is the legacy of the late Sir Iain Noble, who founded the independent bottler Pràban na Linne and actually received planning permission for the project back in 2002. Sadly, he passed away in 2010, before the project could come to fruition.
From Skye’s northerly port at Uig, we are able to take a CalMac ferry to our next destination: the twin islands of Harris and Lewis. The Isle of Harris is essentially the southern part of Lewis, and vice versa, in that the two land masses are joined by a natural causeway. There are rugged mountains in the north and breathtakingly beautiful sandy beaches to be found in the south at Luskentyre, opposite the island of Taransay, and the three miles of white sand at Scarista have distant views of the remote island group of St Kilda. West Loch Tarbert and East Loch Tarbert are connected by a narrow isthmus, which separates the northern and southern regions of Harris, at the harbour village of Tarbert. Here we find the island’s principal port, a superb Harris Tweed shop and a recently created distillery.

The Isle of Harris Distillery, which opened in late 2015, is the result of an eight-year drive to introduce a commercially-sized distillery (230,000lpa per year) to the Outer Hebrides. Known as 'the social distillery', its aim is not just to produce superb single malt whisky and gin, but to stimulate the local economy by providing jobs and spreading both the spirit and identity of Harris across the globe. It is hoped that in the coming decade the brand will encourage more people to visit the island.

On Lewis we can also find a distillery, albeit one of a much smaller size, 20,000lpa per year. Founded by owner Mark Tayburn in 2008, who designed and built the stills himself, Abhainn Dearg was the first legal distillery in the Outer Hebrides for 200 years. As of 2015, all barley used for the distillery’s production is sourced on the island. Although mature spirit has been released, it is a rare sight on shelves. But that might be changing. In 2018 the first year’s production will turn 10 years old and the word is there will be a release. Keep your eyes peeled.
At this point, the particularly dedicated may wish to nip on a ferry down the spine of the Outer Hebrides to Barra, where there have been on-and-off rumblings of a malt distillery project for some years but nothing yet to show for it. The launch of Isle of Barra Gin could potentially pave the way for Scotch whisky production on the island, but it’s still early days.

But that might be changing. In 2018 the first year’s production will turn 10 years old and the word is there will be a release. Keep your eyes peeled.

Returning to the mainland by way of the Stornoway (on Lewis) to Ullapool (in Ross-shire) ferry, the next leg of our journey requires a road trip up the northern leg of the A9, a whisky adventure in its own right. Passage to Orkney means either departing Caithness from Scrabster for Stromness (Northlink Ferries) or Gills Bay for South Ronaldsay (Pentland Ferries). Although only about the same size as Islay and Jura combined, the sprawling archipelago of Orkney punches well above its weight in terms of history, wildlife, and whisky. The heart of Neolithic Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb, two Neolithic stone circles, and a Stone Age village; it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and represents but a pinch of the history that can be experienced here.

Orkney’s principal island, Mainland, is home to two prominent distilleries: Scapa and Highland Park. Founded in 1885, Scapa has a capacity of 1.3 million lpa per year that is predominantly utilised in Chivas Brothers’ blends, although two official ‘core range’ single malt bottlings do exist. It is worth noting that one of the only surviving Lomond stills in the industry is located at Scapa, although the adjustable plates are not in use. A visitor centre opened in 2015, a milestone in the distillery’s emergence from the shadows.

Our penultimate visit is to Highland Park. A distillery that in recent years has achieved cult status, it is noteworthy for continuing the rare practices of peat cutting and floor malting, both of which are managed in-house to provide the distillery’s peated barley allocation. Unpeated barley, which makes up about 80 per cent of the distillery’s usage, is shipped in from the mainland. Acclaimed for a superb visitor centre experience, guests learn about both the distillery’s history and also the islands’ Norse heritage.

While we could hang up our hat here and call it a day with an Orcadian malt in hand, why stop when there’s still a little bit of the Scottish island trail left to explore? Admittedly, Shetland doesn’t have a single malt distillery yet but the small production facility at Saxa Vord on Unst, the UK’s most northerly territory, is making a small-batch gin called Shetland Reel. The owner, Shetland Distillery Company, has released independently ‘bottled in Shetland’ Scotch whisky and say that the next step is to install pot stills for whisky production. Once that happens, at least we’ll always know the undisputed location of Scotland’s most northerly distillery, unless someone decides to start distilling on an oil rig, of course.
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